A Sermon on Fire
About a week ago I decided it was cold enough to justify building a fire – I went looking for an old newspaper, but there wasn’t any to be found. As I was pondering my situation, I noticed an old sermon, paper-clipped together and still inside its bulletin, sitting on the shelf in what we call our reading room.
I think it was a sermon called, “Stirrings in the Night” – but it wasn’t stirring anymore. It had passed from stirring to rigor mortis and even beyond.
All its moisture was gone; all the unction of its holy function had dried up; all the sweat of prayer, all the little notes and reminders written in the margin, meant nothing to me now. It’s days of stirring – either on Sunday or any other day were over!
Sermons can be recycled – did you know this sermon is manufactured from 75% recycled materials? I’m an eco-friendly preacher!
Well, anyway, I took it, and page by page, twisted it into thin tubes of paper, thirteen or fourteen pages all told, just enough for a fire. Imogen and Gwendoline walked in and saw what I was doing: “Are you burning your sermon?” they demanded.
“Yes,” I said, “I am!”
“Really?” they asked, astonishment in their voices. “Your sermon? Your burning your sermon?!” They had never been so interested in my sermon as when I was burning it. Perhaps one of the most memorable sermons I’ve ever preached — is the one I burned.
But it was true, that’s exactly what I was doing. And I was kind of beginning to see the poetic potential of my act. . . .
“Yes,” I told them. “My preaching is really on fire now!”
Which sent the girls into a fit of giggles – they ran down stairs and yelled out to mom, “Daddy’s sermon is on fire! Daddy’s sermon is on fire!” They found this immensely amusing – as in, the heart of comedy is irony, as in perhaps they don’t associate preaching with fire — but there it was, a sermon on fire, with licks of bright lively flame, sizzling up the stove pipe, promising warmth to one and all. If it gave no one warmth on Sunday, it was, in a sense, restored to a better flame – or at least a literal one – last week!
But I wondered about those pages, those dry sermonic salvages and I thought, “What of the sermon that we write each day of our lives? How is that sermon coming along? Is there any life in it? Or is the sermon of our life just the accumulation of days, of dry days, days insensible to season, deaf to feeling, 24 hours repeating, a monotonous valley, without narrative or name or purpose?”
How is the sermon of your life this morning? Is there any fire in it?
Reading Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones put me into a metaphorical mood – and not by accident. Ezekiel comes to us out of Israel’s history, particularly out of the experience of the Babylonian Deportation of 586/87 BCE but it isn’t confined to historicity as such. Unusually for this prophet, Ezekiel does not date this vision, as he ordinarily does. And try as they might, scholars can’t determine the exact valley that Ezekiel has in mind. Or the particular battle or even the national identity of those in the valley.
In any case, the prophet announces this as a vision – God takes him to a valley or “the valley” — God’s hand is laid upon Ezekiel. He undergoes a “trance seizure” in which the Spirit capacitates him for God’s vision. It’s not history, as such. It doesn’t pretend to be history.
It does suggest total loss – this valley holds bones without name or memory. Scattered. This is not a memorial but a mass grave from some nameless catastrophe.
Is it then metaphor? Maybe. It seems like a metaphor but the text betrays a kinetic quality – which pushes us back into our neighborhood. Scattered bones find their partners – the leg bone is connected to the hip bone, and so it continues. Flesh or viscera, otherwise known as the gut pile, gets scooped up and slopped into the chest and stomach cavity. Then sinew to hold the viscera and bones together. Then skin as the sack for the glistening wet mass.
The valley rattles with the sound of reanimation. It conveys kinetic, brash resurrection. You hear the banging and clatter and gasping and fleshing of the human community being restored by God.
It recalls the image of God in Genesis 2. God looks like a MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art) student – she’s just come out of the studio. She’s got smudges of paint on her face and her jeans and she looks like she just about got lost in her senior project. She nearly inhaled it or inspired it.
That’s how God creates the human being, breathing divine spirit into the earth, adamah. You know what it’s like with art – or mouth-to-mouth – our breath mingles and mixes; our senses and smells blend and bleed; it’s hard to tell which is the artist and which the object.
But here’s the actual metaphor of today’s text — the prophet quotes an apparently common saying among the people. It consists of three lines of two words each, with a rhyme. I can’t recover the rhyming scheme, but this is how I would render it:
Our bones — dry.
Our hope — lost.
Our lives – scattered.
Metaphor. I’m dog-tired. I’m sorry, we’re broke. I feel so empty today. The light has gone out of her eyes. Tears have been my food day and night. My get up and go has got up gone. I feel like an old sack of bones.
It’s almost as if Ezekiel is answering this metaphoric complaint of emptiness, of meaninglessness, of disorientation, with this dramatic, kinetic, brashly physical picture of national, or corporate resurrection, or bodily resuscitation.
This text speaks to our metaphoric emptiness – which many of us know — with a brashly kinetic recollection of creation but now reconceived as resurrection. Not resurrection as something for the by-and-by, but something for our own day, our own time. It may be that we’ve got in front of us a species of resurrection, namely, resuscitation.
Today’s text is paired with the story of Jesus’ resuscitation of Lazarus – he had been dead for several days. Mary told Jesus it was too late for Lazarus; he was too far gone. He’d been dead for days: “By now Lord, he stinketh.” But Jesus raises or resuscitates Lazarus – it foreshadows resurrection, but it is not resurrection itself.
One rabbi looking at today’s text says it’s a this-world-resurrection: “The dead that Ezekiel revived got up on their feet, sang a hymn, and died.”
A resuscitation in this world – it bends towards resurrection, anticipates resurrection, is really meaningless apart from bodily resurrection. And yet, for this season of forty days, it invites us to think about how we can add life to our days, breathe the sweet breath of faith, hope and love into tombs, that by now, stinketh with regret or grief or despair.
God asks the question, “Can these bones live?”– and maybe we say, as many have said before, “God knows!” But that’s a way of saying, enough for me. I’m done.
God says to Ezekiel, prophecy to these bones. See honestly, but believe boldly.
That’s the church for you. Sure, look at your days. Tell it like it is – from ash you have come to ash you shall return. Maybe you drank your days away. Maybe you’re drinking them away now. Sure, look at your days. Today, maybe your mind isn’t as quick as it used to be – your intellectual playground – its swings and slides of intelligence — has been locked away with the arrival of old age. Sure, look at your days . . . tombstones of things done and things left undone. Is there any fire left in the sermon of your life?
Can we add a single day to our lives? Probably not. But we can, by God’s grace, add life to our days.
Prophecy to these bones. Most people won’t dare. Truth is, they won’t even go to that valley.
But some do. Chuong Nguyen, a priest, and one of the “boat people” from Vietnam – he came on one of the boats just before Saigon fell in 1975. Nguyen was horrified, aghast when he saw Trump’s order banning Muslim’s from coming to America. As one who came as a refugee from Vietnam, he knows what a harrowing journey that can be.
But he was grateful for the country that received him as a child – and he is also appalled at the country we seem to be becoming. Maybe part of him said, it’s no point. By now lady liberty stinketh in her tomb. But somehow, by God’s grace, he didn’t throw up. Instead, he caught his breath and he testified.
He wrote to our president and said, “Take my citizenship and give it to someone else, give it to a Syrian refugee.” Our president can’t do that of course – but the spirit of what he said, what he was willing to do, inspires an expiring dream.
Nguyen took it one step further – he’s asking his religious superiors to send him to a majority Muslim country.[i]
Send him to the thing that we, as Americans and Christians, think is about as far from our living as imaginable. Bear witness there. Live there. Breathe there.
Add life to your days.
Thirty-eight years, he said. Thirty-eight years I was in prison. They wanted me to die in prison. But I’m here today. That’s how Bob Resek introduced himself to this community. Bob isn’t here today – he is with family in Florida. He wanted you to know that. But he said I could share with you today.
Bob was an accessory to murder – he didn’t pull the trigger, but he was an accessory. He wasn’t the “principal” actor. Yet if he hadn’t been there that night, it might have never happened. A good man died. So the law convicts. That was thirty-eight years ago. It’s a long journey out of the tomb of a prison. Thirty-eight years long.
That number struck me. Nearly forty years. Long enough to die. And my guess is that Bob would tell us something died in that prison. Anger died in that prison. Bitterness died in that prison. Shame died in that prison.
But something like the Spirit of God must have swept through that prison, too. You wouldn’t imagine it possible. But it’s true. A human being — loved by God, rejoicing in God, redeemed in God, strengthened by God – that’s who will be joining our church on Easter Sunday.
And if him, why not you? Or me? Why not now? If in prison, why not here?
I’m tired. Bone tired. I feel so empty. Worn out and used up. My get up and go has got up and gone. Tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me, where is your God? I haven’t the breath to answer them. I can’t think anymore. I’m scattered. I don’t know up from down. My heart aches with an absence I cannot name, an absence I cannot fill. If my head weren’t attached, I think I would have lost it a long time ago. Darkness is my closest friend.
I feel so empty. Brother, do you have light? Sister, could you spare a flame?
I’m dying for a smoke.
[i] Peter W. Marty, “A Refugee’s Gift” in The Christian Century (28 February 2017) accessed at https://www.christiancentury.org/article/refugee%E2%80%99s-gift on 6 April 2017.